CHICAGO — Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen is staking a mountain of free corned beef — and pastrami and salami and, yes, even turkey if you must — on keeping that mask on at the legendary Chicago restaurant.

The 79-year-old institution, which has been a backdrop for generations of politicians, celebrities and diners simply in search of a quality corned beef on rye, announced on social media last Sunday night that it would “give away free sandwiches for the day” if staff could go 30 days without needing to remind customers to mask up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dan Raskin, the fourth-generation owner of Manny’s, said in an interview that he would follow through on the day of free sandwiches should his customers earn it.

He doesn’t think they will.

“It’s ridiculous the amount we have to ask people to do it,” he said of mask reminders. “It’s multiple times a day — probably multiple times an hour.”

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Manny’s mask scofflaws aren’t generally motivated by malice, Raskin said. Most often, the reminders come when someone is walking mask-free to the restroom. Or when someone pulls one down to order.

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Occasionally someone walks into the restaurant without a mask, having forgotten it in the car. Or sometimes people let their masks droop below the nose for comfort — though that issue seems to have abated.

“People wear their masks better than they did,” Raskin said. “Ninety-five percent of customers had them below their nose six months ago.”

Most of the mask issues, he said, seem to be “accidental and people not thinking about it.” But people need to think about it, Raskin said.

“Whether people agree with the science or not, we’re going to go on the side of safety,” he said.

Manny’s issued its challenge a day after a Florida woman’s tweet blew up in which she said her employer would give away free doughnuts for a day if the business could go 30 days without asking people to wear masks.

It’s not going well.

Raskin said he wasn’t aware of the Florida woman’s tweet, and didn’t know if his social media director knew of it when proposing the idea for the challenge at Manny’s.

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However, the difficulty of getting customers to be masked and mindful persists in Chicago and well beyond — including at Seaside Brewing in Oregon, which on Facebook threatened a surcharge on uncooperative customers.

The Manny’s initiative is largely about raising awareness, Raskin said, and “trying to educate people in a fun way.”

Through the first two hours of business on Monday morning, customers had done their part, Raskin said: Manny’s workers hadn’t had to remind a single customer to wear a mask.

Just 29 days to go, Chicago!

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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